9-Liners from UNPROFOR’s Sector Sarajevo: Anecdotal Evidence (RCAF Journal - SUMMER 2014 - Volume 3, Issue 3 - Points of Interest)


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By Major Roy Thomas (Retired), MSC, CD, MA

It was great to see Professor Trudgen’s article on the Sarajevo air bridge [Operation Air Bridge: Canada’s Contribution to the Sarajevo Airlift,” Royal Canadian Air Force Journal, Vol. 2, no. 2, Spring 2013] around the 20th anniversary of the start of the “air flow.” His work prompted me to submit the following anecdotal evidence on some 9‑liner[1]  medical evacuations (MEDEVACs) that I noted during my nine months as the senior United Nations military observer (UNMO) in Sector Sarajevo. 

A major concern came with assumption of the duties of a United Nations (UN) senior military observer (SMO), Sector Sarajevo, in October 1993. The commander responsible for not only the UNMOs in the observation posts around Sarajevo but also a team in the demilitarized safe haven of Zepa as well as another in the militarized safe haven of Gorazde. “Safe” is a misnomer, as the documents establishing these safe havens were UN Security Council Resolutions, yet the only UN military personnel in Gorazde were the UNMOs. In Zepa, in addition to an UNMO team, there was also a mechanized company from the Ukrainian United Nations Protection Force (UNPROFOR) contingent.

The Bosnian Serb campaign in Eastern Bosnia had driven the Bosnian government forces and Muslim refugees into three pockets of resistance with their backs to the Drina River. The Srebrenica safe haven was part of another UNPROFOR sector. All overland communications had to pass through Bosnian Serb territory and many checkpoints.

Before the author became SMO, an UNMO severely wounded in Gorazde had required treatment under field conditions in the local Bosnian hospital until safe passage of a MEDEVAC helicopter could be negotiated with the Bosnian Serb hierarchy. Although the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) maintained a no‑fly zone above Bosnia, the Bosnian Serbs had significant mechanized ground-based air defence assets. Indeed, during NATO’s air strikes on Gorazde targets in April 1994, one such air defence system shot down a Royal Air Force Harrier. There was a threat! Negotiations were frustrating and took time. In the case of Gorazde, for example, clearance could not be obtained in a timely manner for helicopter evacuation of a seriously ill child, so the Gorazde UNMO team, itself, had to transport the child and mother overland using mountainous roads and checkpoints that often did not have the authorization to let them pass.

In the case of Zepa, a helicopter MEDEVAC involving several French Pumas was successful thanks to the personal courage of the commander of Sector Sarajevo, French General André Soubirou. When the Bosnian Serb clearance was not forthcoming, he told his headquarters to advise the Bosnian Serb commander that he would be on the first helicopter. The flights to and from Zepa were without incident.

The process on the ground was not as smooth, due to the lack of any UN High Commissioner for Refugees representative except local temporary employees, as well as because of the devotion of the Zepa pocket’s only doctor (a Bosnian) to his spouse. As the triage decision maker who decided who would be medically evacuated, the doctor put his wife (the safe haven’s only dentist) on the list to be airlifted out with these flights, even though she had no reason to go to the local clinic. A riotous crowd protested her inclusion as an evacuee and the UNMO team intervened with interpreters to ensure a valid medical case was substituted for the Zepa pocket’s only dentist.

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Caption reads: Safe-havens in proximity to Sarajevo in summer 1994 are highlighted on the map. They include Srebrenica, Zepa, and Gorazde. End of caption.

Safe-havens in proximity to Sarajevo in summer 1994 are highlighted on the map. They include Srebrenica, Zepa, and Gorazde.


In Sarajevo itself, two MEDEVAC flights stand out as illustrations of the courage of the French Puma aircrews. After dark, one flight transported casualties from a French post on Mount Igman, of 1984 Olympic fame. On the return to the French hospital in Sarajevo, the pilot’s bulletproof seat took multiple small arms hits (it was next to impossible at night to determine who actually fired and from where). This particular crew turned around and undertook another MEDEVAC to the same location after the first casualties had been unloaded. The approach for the hospital helipad provided a continuous demonstration of pilot skill, as the Puma had to settle down from a hover in a square of sandbags so as to minimize the potential for damage from the daily shelling. A February 1994 agreement stopped the artillery shelling, but the sandbags remained in place as sniper activity increased.

These few anecdotes illustrate that there was danger for the helicopters that flew 9‑liners for the UNPROFOR and UNMOs in Sector Sarajevo. Personal courage was required from not only the aircrew and medics flying the mission, but also, in the case of Zepa, from the Sector Commander himself. Also evident was that what happens on the ground can be completely out of the hands of the aircrew or helicopter medics involved. Finally, a 9‑liner didn’t necessarily mean a helicopter would appear. There is a Canadian dimension to the MEDEVAC that finally took place in the case of the UNMO casualty in Gorazde before the author arrived in Sector Sarajevo. The Canadian Field Hospital in Visoko is credited with saving this UNMO’s life when he finally got there. Fortunately, during the author’s nine months as SMO ending mid-July 1994, there was no need for a 9‑liner for any Sector Sarajevo UNMO.


MEDEVAC―medical evacuation

NATO―North Atlantic Treaty Organization

SMO―senior military observer

UN―United Nations

UNMO―United Nations military observer

UNPROFOR―United Nations Protection Force

Roy Thomas is a retired armoured reconnaissance officer with UN service in Cyprus, the Golan Heights, Jerusalem, Afghanistan, Macedonia, Sarajevo and Haiti. Roy is a recipient of the Meritorious Service Cross; an UNPROFOR Force Commander’s Commendation: a United Nations Mission in Haiti Force Commander’s Commendation and a US Army Commendation Medal. He is a graduate of the Pakistan Army Command and Staff College, Quetta, Baluchistan, and the United Kingdom Tank Technology course in Bovington, Dorset, as well as our Army Staff College. Since leaving the Canadian Forces, Roy has shared his UN experiences through training and lectures in Zimbabwe, Thailand, Ecuador, Switzerland, Sweden, the United States and Canada, including two Air Symposiums (1998 and 2011). He has published numerous magazine articles and book chapters, the majority on military topics.


[1]. A “9‑liner” refers to the specific number of lines in a MEDEVAC request. In general, the NATO format is: Line 1 – location of the pick-up site; Line 2 – radio frequency, call-sign and suffix; Line 3 – number of patients by precedence; Line 4 – special equipment required; Line 5 – number of patients; Line 6 – security at pick-up site; Line 7 – method of marking pick-up site; Line 8 – patient nationality and status; and Line 9 – nuclear, biological and chemical contamination.  (return)

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